Imagine: The Freedom to Dream


Anne Waldman introduced by Puneeta Roy


By Rushati Mukherjee, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger


Anne Waldman is a poet, professor, performer, author and activist. Her poetry travels through one’s blood. The ‘rage’ that propelled her through her early years of poetry could scorch the sun, but her wit and affection can light up the room. Her prophetic performance during the keynote address of ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival embodied all that is fascinating about her overwhelming body of work. She is, by turns, fiery, charming, teasing, sombre, and full of laughter, and it was with these qualities that she kept the audience enthralled during this session.

A child of working-class parents brought up in the 1950s, Waldman’s adolescence was informed by her family’s atheist, Bohemian leanings, and what she called ‘the shadow of the bomb.’ “War is an eternal tale,” she remarked. She was fascinated by it from the moment she was asked to wear a dogtag with her name on it by a teacher in a bomb shelter, so that her body could be identified in the event of a bomb strike. This curious epiphany about the overwhelming closeness of battle and death collided with the scenes she saw outside her New Jersey home: Quakers out in the streets, protesting and reading poetry. “That’s when I thought, there has to be a different way to be alive,” she said.

The bomb was a ‘luminous detail in the psyche’ of Waldman and it continues to shape the conflicts in her poetry. Her anti-war feminist epic, The Iovis Trilogy, is an example of this. “The point of the epic is to tell the story of your time,” says Waldman, and indeed she has, through the trilogy which spans the Vietnam war, the Korea war and the Palestinian conflict. A visit to a museum became the basis for Manatee/Humanity, a reflective novel on endangered species. “This is a creature that has no use in our world,” she said. “It has no skills. It is very odd looking. Nobody pays attention to it.” And it is endangered. So, naturally, she adopted it into her poetry, making it the central figure in her book.

Waldman is closely associated with the Beat movement, whose patriarch, Allen Ginsberg, famously referred to her as his ‘spiritual wife.’ The Beat Generation took poetry out of the “gilded halls of academia and into the rough underside of society,” pointed out Roy. The influence of jazz, profanity and dark, restless introspection that characterized Beat poetry is central to Waldman’s work, which is filled with what she calls her ‘candour.’ There is an almost confessional frankness in her poetry, which consists of ‘questions you ask yourself in the middle of the night.’

“I’ve been too much of a patriot,” declared Waldman. “This is about to change.” In the era of an incoming President who denies climate change, she pointed out that “the climate doesn’t exactly vote for itself.” Her defiant defence of the planet mingled with her disdain for the ‘hungry ghost’ coming into power – “never have enough, get enough, get enough!” – made the audience erupt with laughter. “Why is this patriarchy continuing?” she wanted to know. “I wrote my poem!”

“It was a busy get-on-with-it business time,” says Waldman of the 21st century. “That’s what they’ll say about us… they killed the air, they killed the water, they killed each other.” This is the world Waldman reveals in her poetry. With a ‘feminine inclination to not-end’, she continues to resist it, however hopeless the struggle might be. “I apologize to anyone younger than me that we did not save the world,” she said. But perhaps it is not wrong to hope that through the burning power of her words, Waldman actually might.

Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill


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